Do past fires affect current Amazon forest dynamics

University of Exeter - College of Life and Environmental Science

Main supervisor: Dr Claire Belcher (Geography, University of Exeter)

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus six Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Met Office, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

Background: Results from long-term Amazon Basin-wide permanent plot data indicate mature tropical forests are gaining carbon, resulting in a substantial carbon sink that has slowed the rise of atmospheric [CO2] (Phillips et al. 2009). However, the rate of C uptake is declining, resulting in a weakening of the Amazon C sink (Brienen et al. 2015). Understanding the drivers of these changes are vital to predict the longevity and magnitude of the C sink.

Knowledge Gap: Amazon forests have an uncertain history over the past 1000 years, and it is unclear how historical disturbance, including past fires, affects the C-balance of Amazonia today. Fire preferentially kills smaller stems, causing long-term forest changes. Improving understanding of how fire interacts with forests and changes in regional climate will help to predict the long-term fate of the Amazon forest C sink and improve planning for conservation and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation.

Goals: You will join an interdisciplinary group of ecologists, fire, plant and soil scientists and remote sensing specialists who have been recently funded to undertake the first Amazon Basin-scale study of historical fire effects on modern Amazonian forests.

You will participate in field campaigns at field sites across Amazonia. The PhD aims are to improve understanding of the environmental controls of fire and quantify how past fires affect ‘old-growth’ Amazonian forests.

Your project will address the following research questions:

  1. When did ‘old-growth’ forests last burn and how much charcoal was produced by past fires?
  2. How did fire properties vary across Amazonian and through time?
  3. Does the past history and characteristics of fire explain contemporary variation in dynamics of Amazonian forests

The PhD will involve a combination of field data collection, laboratory analysis of charcoals, and analysis of large vegetation and climate datasets. The field-based component will focus on forest structure measurements, fire evaluation, and collection of charcoal from Amazonian soil. Lab analysis will consist of quantification of fire properties using microscopy measurements of charcoal. The analysis component will use the field and lab data to statistically evaluate the interaction between fire, climate and forests. The student must be numerically competent and have a desire to work both in the laboratory and under challenging field conditions. This PhD provides the opportunity to work in a world-class research team on a genuinely novel research question and allows the opportunity to develop your own research interests. The results will have significant impacts in predicting the longevity of the Amazon carbon sink, understanding long-term fire effects, redirecting conservation efforts, improving vegetation models, and affecting policy decisions.

Please see for full information regarding applications.

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South West England